Our Lady of Perpetual Help was once a thriving Catholic school nestled in the middle of a stable and busy north St. Louis neighborhood. Children flooded in and out of its doors in neatly pressed uniforms and squeaky clean faces, ready to obey the orders of the no-nonsense nuns in charge. Now, its windows are busted out; a few of them boarded up with plywood, many of which have been spray painted with words and phrases which would make the nuns blush. A mattress leans against a shattered window on the second floor. Someone had been living in there. Books and student papers from the 1960s flutter about, and empty liquor bottles and trash gather in communal piles. Synthetic and ratty tumbling tumble-weaves dance across the cracked asphalt parking lot. The stone cross high above the entrance is crooked, like God himself gave it an angry swat.
In four days, I was to be teaching children in this building. My first teaching job, after signing on to be part of an up-and-coming charter school, promising superior education to children who have, until now, been offered sub-standard schooling. I had no teaching experience whatsoever, and was told I'd be teaching 8th grade. Then 5th. Then 2nd. Then I was taken out to dinner by one of the directors, a creepy older military man with a scar running the length of his cheek, and offered a position as a principal. No, I explained, I would not be taking that. Doesn't he think it would be good for me to get some teaching experience first? Okay, he countered, perhaps I'd just like to go bowling with him sometimes and we could also enjoy some karaoke together. No, I explained. I would not be doing that, either. Perhaps he might think about asking his wife to do those things with him, I offered.
The late-opening, the indecision about what I'd be teaching, the weird karaoke offer- all of these things pointed to a level of dysfunction, the surface of which was just barely beginning to get scratched. Three years of teaching there leave me with the following highlights. No embellishing is necessary when it comes to telling these stories:
1) "Um, did you just sprinkle some Comet on that pile of vomit and use a broom to whoosh it around it a circle? And then leave it there?"
I had a student who, due to what I believe was an extreme case of fetal-alcohol syndrome, sat in class with her mouth gaping wide open and a string of drool wobbling from her bottom lip. About three times each day, she would lean to the side, vomit, then lean back- as though nothing had ever happened. What was met with "EWWWW!"s from the other students at the beginning of the year was ignored by several months in. Yes, I called the nurse. Yes, I told the principal. Yes, I called home. "That's just what she does," I was told. "It's okay." Really? Didn't seem okay to me.
What also seemed not okay was how the mess was dealt with. I learned that calling for help from the custodian yielded less than desirable results when I witnessed him come it, sprinkle Comet powder over the vomit, then take the bristles from a regular broom and kind of mush it all around a bit. Big, circular sweeping motions, like he was stirring some kind of delicious soup in a large cauldron. Then he left. That was it. No follow up cleaning was necessary, I guess. I should be happy with a Comet-sprinkled pile of vomit. Kids love that kind of thing in their classroom. I took on later cleanings myself.
Which leads me to...
2) "Damn right we're not putting any soap or toilet paper in the bathrooms. If we do, the kids just go and use it all up!"
That was the response to my question about why we'd been out of toilet paper and soap in the student bathrooms for weeks now. I could kind of overlook that fact that all of the doors had been removed because "kids will just do nasty stuff in there" if doors are up. I mean to say, the students had developed a system of standing shoulder to shoulder to create makeshift doors for themselves, gaining some kind of privacy. But no amount of bodily creativity could create soap. Or toilet paper. Our custodians had become enraged about having to replenish both items and were going to teach these damn private part-wiping and hand-washing kids a lesson! We went the entire year with no soap and no toilet paper. Instead, I'd line kids up outside of the bathroom and give them a wad of toilet paper on their way in. On the way out, their hands were squirted with hand sanitizer. Problem solved.
Although, even if we did have soap, it's hard to wash without water.
3) "He told you to do WHAT?!"
Sometimes our electricity was shut off. Often, our phones were disconnected. It seems we didn't have a great track record with paying our bills, or at least the money for the bills didn't always make it where it was supposed to. On one occasion, our water was shut off. No running water at all. Now, in the district where I currently teach, I arrived at school one morning to be sent home for the day due to no running water. A pipe had cracked. School was canceled until it was fixed. Because that's the normal thing to do.
At this, school, however, we didn't operate on the normal cycle.
I lined students up, as I usually did, and distributed their toilet paper wads. As the first few students exited the bathroom, I held out the hand sanitizer. "Aw, we don't need none of that," one student said. "Mr. Jones helped us wash our hands. He's in the bathroom."
"Naw," the students explained, holding up hands glistening with wetness. "He tol' us to wash our hands in the terlet."
"He tol' us to wash our hands in the terlet."
I swung open the bathroom door, and yelled inside- "Mr. Jones! Are you having kids wash their hands in the toilet?"
"Not in the toilet, girl! In the toilet tank!" Then he laughed, like I was some kind of nut for thinking he'd have kids wash their hands in the toilet bowl. Because washing one's hands in the toilet tank is so much more appropriate. I bought more hand sanitizer.
I could go on and on. About the custodian who was put in charge of disciplining students, and would have them stand for hours at a time in the boiler room in the basement with their arms extended toward the ceiling.
About the mom who stormed into my classroom during my first year and threatened to "kick [my] muthufuckin' ass, bitch!"
About the shooting outside, which caused us to have to "get down! get down!" Or the Assistant Principal's decision to bring in a very realistic fake gun to pull out of the waistband of his pants, causing students to scream and fall under their desks. "It's okay," he explained, "I'm just teaching you a lesson. If you find a gun at home, pick it up like this." (He bounces it in his hands.) If it's heavy, it's real, and you shouldn't play with hit. If it's light, it's a toy, and you can do this." (Points the gun and proceeds to click, click, click the trigger.)
About the time I had to explain to "Auntie Reenie" that, no, she could not just barge into my classroom with a belt and "whoop up on" her niece at any time she wished. (Incidentally, that year's principal offered his office up as a place to do the whoopin' since I was uncomfortable with it happening in my classroom.)
About the time our computers went missing over winter break, we collected the insurance money, and then they were found in a building next door. On the third floor. Hiding.
About the time I asked my principal for a pair of scissors to trim the excess paper from a bulletin board, and he replied, "Don't worry about it, baby doll, I got it"- then proceeded to use his hideously long pinky fingernail as a cutting device, slowly edging it along the border of the board, making a disturbing ripping sound. It did work, though.
About the school counselor who instructed students to "go inside if your face starts burning." This, she explained would be a chemical attack (after 9/11), since St. Louis was a target because of the arch.
One day I'll write more. Volumes, perhaps. Enough that we can all read it and never again will we, as teachers, be tempted to complain about the copy machine not working. Or not liking the food that the PTO has brought in to feed us for teacher appreciation day. Or not being able to get into the computer lab- the one with dozens of brand new mac computers- because someone else is signed up for it.
I lose perspective. Sure. But it only takes a moment for me to remember that all I have are luxury problems today.